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Boxing Day, 2004- the bark of a stern God:
Navaz in Kari Kattu Kuppam [K K Kuppam] saw it as it happened. As he puts it: "I heard what I thought was a tipper truck unloading rocks on the sea shore and ran to see where the truck might have come from". It was the tsunami visiting India for the first time in living memory.
Navaz ran down to the shallow part of K K Kuppam where a hut floated off like a boat and smashed against a wall a neighbour had built. In it was an old man and his four grandchildren, soon to be discovered dead. Nearby, the grandmother lay pinned down by a power post. Luckily the power lines had snapped. Navaz and a few fishermen rescued her. She was Rajathi Ammal, a champion of community rights and a foot soldier in ECCO's battles. She survives. No more people than these five died. That's the human score. Soon to die was the fishermen's natural confidence about the sea.
Navaz and Juno, his neighbour, did some rescuing, and ferrying the injured to the hospital. They had no clue that they were but pieces in a stern God's large, cold plan. DV, in the city had no idea either, that the flea-bite of a tremor he felt in his bed, was part of the same plan. By 9am he began getting calls from the village and he raced around to shops buying all the bread, biscuits and bananas he could manage. Loading the car full, he headed for Muttukkadu, even as people were fleeing it in fear. The usual 40 minutes drive took two hours because of the detours and the crowds on the streets. But despite all panic, there was order, dignity and acceptance.
People of K K Kuppam had run out in waves as water swirled into their hamlet. They broke up and scattered; they scrambled on to every vehicle they found, wherever it was headed. The rest of the day was spent in dashing everywhere to reunite families. The proud fisherfolk were huddled in a panchayat school grounds in Egattur about 5 km inland. Never before in their history had this happened. As dusk fell, the disorientation was not yet fully defined. They were delighted because families were together again. They mentioned it a few times, but it will be days before they realise they have suffered a separation from their habitat of 200 years.
'Tsunami' is a word we learnt later that day from the TV. The following extracts from two mails sent to friends reflects our narrow view with much innocence:
this is my one-for-all mail for friends who have been calling in and enquiring about how the tidal wave impacted me.
so directly to the main question: i am well. i was in the city and felt a tremor that was so quick that i thought i had imagined it. but by 9am i began getting calls from my village about the tidal waves. in fact no one had known a tidal wave. storms and cyclones, yes. but not one that was a 10 foot high water wall that was approaching you as you looked up from net-mending or a hand of rummy on the beach.
it was not one wave, but kept coming back with no predictable interval. i swooped on shops, loaded my car with relief food and drove to my village, even as there was an exodus in the opposite direction. and when i was there, i saw another wave advance. it was quite a daunting experience, i will not forget in a hurry.
for those of you who know my farm, the news is, it is untouched. the water came in about 300 metres and house is 600 m away. but what happened to the fishing village is another story. 4 children and an old man were drowned. by 2pm we managed to gather most of them in a school about 5 km inland. pity was, earlier people had boarded any vehicle leaving the village and in the process many families got split. mothers whose children went missing, were understandably inconsolable.
people wheeled around --among them me-- to reunite families. we went to villages all around in search. barring about 15 still untraced children, people are together now.
but i visualise what happens after 3 days when my village and others fall off the front pages. every fishing boat has been lost, every net and every outboard engine. and the incident has left the fear of the new demon that comes without a hint. when the fisherfolk return to the village, they will never be same. they don't feel safe in their village. their means of livelihood is gone. they would have lost the world's mind share.
the loss has not been just in lives or property. it is the loss of confidence that we may not regain for decades.
that's the day for you from near chennai..
thanks for the calls.
from navaz to friends
It was a day with blue sky, beautiful looking ocean and then suddenly and without any warning at 9:05 am., I heard what sounded like a tipper truck unloading rocks. I went to see what was happening (since I knew it was from a side where no road existed) and saw this mass of blue water gushing into the land.
The first wave caught everyone unawares and swept many elderly people. One hut that the wave carried and crashed on my neighbor's compound wall had 3 children and their grand father trapped inside it. One girl survived.
Since yesterday I have received several phone calls from friends and well wishes like you asking if my family and I were okay and if you could help.I confirm that my family and I after realizing that it was not a freak phenomenon and that it was coming in cycles we evacuated at about 11:30 or so.
The village and the villagers are devastated and the lucky ones have what's left of their boats and homes. The unlucky ones had their boats washed away and ALL of them have lost their nets and engines. All the villagers have moved to a camp about 3 km. inland and are scared to go back as of now.
Day2 for Muttukkadu refugees:
It's so tiring to recount again what happened on Day2. It's all best inferred from an end-of-the-day mail sent out by dv to some friends:
at the end of day2 after the tsunami struck my village, i have gained new perspectives. i had been out all day and so have missed the tv visuals until now. i stare stunned at the bbc stream and what i say is influenced by that, after just 30 minutes of watching.
so first off, thanks again, for offering to come in person and help in other ways. having said that, i feel nagapattinam in tn is winning the tragedy sweepstakes, if you will pardon my black humour. so do turn your attention to it in terms of physical and monetary help.
for those of you who know me and are insistent in maintaining a narrow focus on the issue, i present the following notes. after all the tragedy here -- miniscule though in terms of numbers, and is dwarfed by the global score--, is nevertheless real:
1- for the second day our poor --about 1000 in all-- will sleep in the open as well as in classrooms in egattur, a village about 6 km inland. my village will be deserted for the second day. what strikes me is the dignity and stoicism of the indian poor, despite the fear that glazes their eyes. children have been taken into neighbours' homes. so also the old. people crack me up with their gratitude for small gestures like mosquito coils, just showing up and sitting down for lunch with them, as i did. so my sharing a meal is a source of happiness! don't they surprise you, these poor --and teach you some!
2- the other thing that strikes me is the efficiency and enthusiasm of relief work, there is no lack of food. in fact some are eating better than they normally would, which is a wry irony. all day people have been driving from village to village offering food packets. there have been offers from amrita foundation, satya sai sangh, pranic healing foundation, the round table, my bete-noire mgm and so on. amazingly, college students who had been billeted in the school, as part of their nss camp met with a real life need. they have jumped in to help in the relief kitchen and to serve the food. the govt has not been laggard, but private initiatives have released them to maintain order and for macro issues.
3- the real problem will begin in a few weeks, when the media light turns away. i would suggest any help to be reserved for that time. i suggest potential donors consider the facts i present and then come forward with their help:
a- immediate: [from now to year end] as already suggested, food and shelter is not a scarcity. so no offer of cooked food please. nor rations to cook, as it is now a community kitchen and taken care of. perhaps biscuits, bananas, mosquito coils and used clothes as these are extras outside the fold of relief work. again, this is not of great urgency.
b- medium range: [jan1 to march1] as the fisher-folk of muttukkadu have lost all means of livelihood, they will require family wise rations -rice and dal- for this period. there are about 350 families that would need this. offers are coming in and more is welcome under this head.
c- longer term: [jan15 to 1jun]. myself and other members of ecco [east coast citizens' organisation] have this tentative strategy, subject of course to revision:
a- repair the 15 fibre glass boats, wrecked and left behind. [no estimate yet]
b- provide basic fishing net at rs.1500 each for 300 families [rs.450,000]
this is what we at ecco are targeting as being doable by us. if there are more funds, there is enough to use them on:
a- supply of catamaran and engine at rs.45,000 each
b- fibre glass boat and engine at rs.65,000 each
c- engine only rs.30,000 each.
these are big numbers and of course the govt is bound to come in with some help. the other option is to see what the govt does in a hurry and then fill in with what their one-norm-for-all leaves out. for instance, they will most likely part fund engines, boats and nets. so ecco and its donors can fill in the gaps.
i will keep you posted on the scene as it develops. for now, please see what you can do for nagappatinam for instance and then if you would, something for my village as under 3b and 3c,
many thanks. do forward this mail to anyone you feel might be interested.
Day3: Back to Muttukkadu and on the whistle-stop belt:
Villagers left Egattur and arrived at Muttukkadu but wouldn't get back to K K Kuppam-- the scare is still fresh. They are camping on an elevated piece of land at what is called "Manja Board". They want land allotted here to feel safe. They are under three splendid tamarind trees on the shoulders of the East Coast Road [ECR].
All day long organisations, groups and individuals have been driving up with food packets, clothes and sundry requirements. There is no lack of the basic needs. The Panchayat President was a man up to the occasion. He had water pipes put in and lights organised. All that is good news. The bad news is the stream of politicians on whistle stop tours. There were so many, with noisy entourages posing for cameras. And the disaster tourists and the 'relief' industry were soon a nuisance. Villagers began to behave like kids at a birthday party: looking for gifts and goodies. There was such a lot of food that soon they were into indigestion. Out of a tragedy, a farce seemed to be emerging.
Profile of a fishing hamlet hit by Tsunami'04
Kari Kattu Kuppam [K K Kuppam] is a fishing hamlet of about 1000 souls forming a part of the Muttukkadu Panchayat. 20km out on the plush new East Coast Road of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, a narrow paved road leads to K K Kuppam.
About 150 years ago Muttukkadu was a Jamin village [sovereign realm covenanted to a landlord]. K K Kuppam was an isolated waterfont boondocks, where fishermen ruled the beaches and plied the seas riding raft like catamarans. The Jamindar had endowed K K Kuppam with spaces for their homes and temples, with hereditary rights. Admittedly, it was no prosperous idyll, but they had the run of beaches and were free.
When 'progress' came on the shoulders of a highway, property prices zoomed, commercial developments began and resorts arrived along the ECR. In the beginning, fishermen and villagers in other hamlets loved the property boom and the windfall profits, even as they ceded their spaces. Every environmental regulation and law was flouted as resorts pandered to tourists' urge to party and frolic by the sea.
The government evangelised tourism and the police with great devotion, enforced 'law and order' on behalf of the resorts. In Muttukkadu the only sea-side 'resort' is the vain and tacky MGM Beach Resorts. But it has been enough to vandalise the beach front. MGM's hurt calls on behalf of their offended tourists would have the police scurrying over to clear the unwashed fishermen, their boats and nets out of sight of genteel holiday makers. For about an year now, ECCO and the fishermen have been fighting this vandal, but that's another story told elsewhere on this site and others.
For some years before the Tsunami'04 hit our village, the 1000 souls of K K Kuppam had been driven to a corner of just 9 acres in all. Their waterfont had reduced from 1500 metres to just 80. They had but a narrow strand on which to park their crafts. For a decade now, there have been no beach scenes of nets spread out expansively for repairs or fish drying under the sun. There was no space for all that, where once, all was theirs.
K K Kuppam had but one cluttered lane out of the hamlet whether for access or escape. They had 15 fibre glass boats and about 150 traditional catamarans, lying practically in a heap on the narrow beach. Even if they had sufficient warning, there was no hinterland into which they could have safely dragged their assets.
But of course the Boxing Day Tsunami came without any warning. The only mercy was it was 9 am and the fisher folk were up and about. They had enough time to stampede through the single narrow lane out of K K Kuppam. Quite touchingly, adults grabbed any child in view as they ran. But that made wailing mothers tarry as they looked for their children. Somehow they scampered to the highway about 500 m. away.
Only 5 died- 4 children and an old man, whose hut floated off and smashed against a stone wall of a developer's property. Only five died! Isn't ours a lucky village! Never mind the pathetic assets the fishermen have lost. Every single means of livelihood -nets, boats and engines- has been lost or ruined.
ECCO had begun to assist the villagers in claiming back their community rights to traditional spaces for worship and meeting. We ran out of time even as we believed we were making some headway.
The Tsunami came in unasked. Now ECCO is trying to comfort, embolden and put the fisherfolk of K K Kuppam back to earning their keep. We know the official relief engine will sputter and stop soon. That's when your assistance will make a difference. 'Materially' speaking, that is. One hopes the Tsunami will have put progress-makers in a mind to understand issues 'environmentally'.
Materially, it'd be nice if we could gift them about 70 fibre glass boats, with nets and engines. Each boats employs 3 men and we could have all able-bodied men at work. But at a cost of nearly Rs.100,000 per well-outfitted boat, it is not an easy task. So ECCO will try and do what it can. Environmentally, it will resume its battles when some calm returns.
No one is safe until then. Our fisher-folk, the least of all.
For those interested in a verbose, folk history of Muttukkadu and its current conflicts, here is a link